BOSTON — It's getting to be as American as Mom and apple pie - find someone to blame if bad things happen to you, and then haul 'em into court and sue for millions of dollars in damages.
Almost every month, it seems, a "mega-tort" lawsuit, as these civil cases are known, makes headlines. Less than two weeks ago, for example, a Texas manicurist won $23.3 million after suing the makers of a controversial diet drug known as "fen-phen." Not long before that, a lawyer for parents of a Columbine High School student killed during last spring's shooting rampage announced he was suing parents of the teen gunmen for $250 million. Then there was the $25 million verdict against the "Jenny Jones" talk show over a guest's murder by another guest.
The list of people and companies sued or being sued goes on and on, including everyone from tobacco and gun manufacturers to parents of troubled teens and makers of toothbrushes. Legal experts say some cases are frivolous, but that many are driven by a deepening desire to make somebody pay when things go wrong.
"There's this belief among Americans that, if I'm injured, someone has to be at fault," says Caroline Forell, a University of Oregon law professor.
It's a mind-set that contradicts traditional views of American individualism and personal accountability - views that continue to resonate in popular culture.
But legal and social observers also say that as Americans have become wealthier - and as the legal profession has grown to the point where this country has more lawyers per capita than any other nation - they have also become more likely to believe it's someone else's job to ensure things go right.
"Americans feel entitled to everything ... and if it doesn't work out that way, we think we ought to be able to find somebody to blame," says Todd Gitlin, a New York University professor of journalism, culture, and sociology. "It's a paranoid response to an inability to be omnipotent."
Defenders of the nation's tort system say that many of the whopping jury awards against corporations actually help average Americans send sharp messages about responsibility to businesses: If you lie or cut corners on safety, and someone gets hurt, you're going to pay.
In the fen-phen judgment, the first case to be ruled on out of 3,000 similar lawsuits filed nationwide, jurors held the drugs' marketers responsible for a heart condition the plaintiff said was caused by using the doctor-prescribed drug combination. (The drugs were taken off the market in late 1997, as claims of related heart-disease complaints began to emerge).
Although critics argue that it's difficult if not impossible to prove that the drugs caused the problem, some legal experts insist the Texas ruling was appropriate. The marketers of fen-phen, they say, should have spent more time and money researching the effect of combining the two drugs - and that by not doing so, they took economic advantage of social pressures on women to be thin.
"You have to question whether the market ... made sure the drugs were as safe as they needed to be," says Susan Berke Fogel, legal director of the California Women's Law Center. "This huge jury verdict reflects a sense of women feeling manipulated by the system."
Even the infamous McDonald's hot-coffee case, a lawsuit that has become something of a poster child for people who want to reform the nation's civil justice system, reflected a warning message, say experts. When a jury awarded $2.9 million to a woman who suffered serious burns after spilling scalding coffee in her lap (the award was later reduced by a judge), it was reacting in part to the fact that McDonald's had received complaints about serving coffee that was too hot, and hadn't responded.
The award amount was reached by determining the amount of money McDonald's made in profits on coffee sold during a two-day period. "The huge damages were to make [McDonald's] listen," Ms. Forell says.
Legal experts say that mega-tort suits are also becoming a way to determine blame and responsibility in public-policy areas where state and national legislators have acted slowly or failed to act at all.
They point to lawsuits being brought against tobacco and gun manufacturers. Both industries have strong political lobbies that have hampered legislative efforts to restrict them - and both have found themselves being taken to court, and losing, in recent years.
Increasingly, those suits have reflected changing beliefs about individual responsibility. An individual smoker, for example, was once seen as being responsible for any health risks he encountered. But as lawsuits have dug out documents that show tobacco firms knew about their products' dangers, juries have begun to hold those companies responsible for smoker health problems.
"The courts are definitely diminishing responsibility close to home, and expanding it further away," says Peter Huber, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of "Liability: The Legal Revolution and Its Consequences."
Part of the reason for that shift, say some legal experts, is that over the past 30 years, law schools have increasingly taught students that the nation's civil-law system can, and should, be used as a tool of social engineering.
"A lot of law professors teach that the common law system is really politics by another name," says David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia. "If legislatures are unwilling to do what people think is necessary, why shouldn't lawyers step in?"
Both defenders and critics of the tort system say they worry that in the midst of all these lawsuits, Americans are losing their ability to realize that there are times when something bad may happen, and it's nobody's fault at all.
"I don't think it's good for society," says Mr. Fogel. "It undermines our sense of personal responsibility, and our ability to accept the fact that the world is not a perfect and totally orderly place."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society